Endless Frontiers: Old-School Pork or New Cold War Tech Race?

The Endless Frontiers Act passed the Senate Tuesday in a bipartisan 68-32 vote. What was originally a $100 Billion bill to reform and enhance US research in ways lauded by innovation policy experts went through 616 amendments. The bill that emerged has fewer ambitious reforms, more local pork-barrel spending, and some totally unrelated additions like “shark fin sales elimination”. But it does still represent a major increase in US government spending on research and technology- and other than pork, the main theme of this spending is to protect US technological dominance from a rising China. One section of the bill is actually called “Limitation on cooperation with the People’s Republic of China“, and one successful amendment was “To prohibit any Federal funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology

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History according to Polybius

It’s unusual for me to sit down on a weekend morning and read *literally checks notes* Polybius. This was assigned to me for a seminar. Here’s his proposal for the inevitable endless cycle of human leadership structures:

  1. Some humans are still alive. They band together because they are too weak to survive alone.
  2. A strong man who bravely defends the group in his youth becomes a monarch. “Kingship” is the next progression. Polybius assumes that people could consent to be under the leadership of a powerful and noble man.
  3. The king has children. The people venerate the descendants of the good king, but these princes and princesses will be spoiled and selfish. The princes “gave way to their appetites owing to this superabundance…” Thus, kingship becomes tyranny.
  4. Nobles overthrow the tyrants, and so become aristocrats. “But here again when children inherited this position of authority from their fathers, having no experience of misfortune and none at all of civil equality and liberty of speech… they abandon themselves to greed… and… rape…” The aristocracy becomes a corrupt oligarchy.
  5. Democracy emerges when people have “killed or banished the oligarchs” and the people remember being mistreated by kings. How does Polybius think democracy ends? Once again, it’s the new generation and the corruption they indulge in. Where do they end up? “… democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence.”
  6. There are two ways to get back to stage 1 monarchy. Life in the decline of a democracy is chaotic enough that people willingly back a strong man to protect them. Alternatively, he presents a “floods, famines, failure of crops… all arts and crafts perish…” scenario. A natural disaster, regardless of what stage in the political cycle humans were at before, will position the survivors to start again at monarchy.
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Wait for the Lower Cost Version of Policy

I’ve written previously about initial US state compulsory schooling laws in regard to literacy and in school attendance rates. I ended with a political economy hypothesis. Here’s the logic:

  1. Legislators like lower costs, all else constant (more funding is available for other priorities).
  2. Enforcing truancy and educating an illiterate populous is costly.
  3. Therefore, state legislatures that passed compulsory attendance legislation will already have had relatively high rates of school attendance and literacy.

That’s it. Standard political economy incentives. But is it true? Well, we can’t tell what’s going on in politician heads today, much less 150 years ago. Though, we can observe evidence that might corroborate the story. In plain terms, consistent evidence for the hypothesis would be that school attendance and literacy rates were rising prior to compulsory schooling legislation. The figures below show attendance and literacy rates for children ages 10 to 18.

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Political Poverty is a Choice

Political drama was about to happen and then it didn’t. Across the country, deep and insightful thinkpieces were left unfinished, relegated to the folder for things writers hope will become future brilliance but definitely never will.

The Big Covid Stimulus Bill was about to fall short by a single vote, with Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) threatening to break against party lines. It was a disaster… until it wasn’t. A political catastrophe, evidence that the Democrats were a failed coalition once again humbled by their ruthless coordinated opposition… until it wasn’t.

So what was the source of this unforeseeable political miracle? Joe Biden’s long-running political strategy of asking people what they wanted, keeping promises, and not being a d*ck.

As much as I want to roll with three paragraphs of clever wordplay referencing stratagems and gambits, the obvious point to be made is that Biden has decades of political capital that the entire Democratic party is currently able to leverage. In contrast, the Republican Party is currently fronted by a Senator who has broken every political norm for short/medium run political gain, while bearing the brand of a career grifter who spent decades opting not to pay his contractors, employees, or lenders.

I’m not much for making forecasts or predictions, so here’s my predictive forecast for the Republican party: they don’t matter and won’t for years.

Make no mistake: their politics still matter a great deal. White ethno-nationalism has a real foothold in chunks of the electorate all over the country, evangelical Christians remains one of the most influential voting blocks, and the US system remains weighted towards the preferences of rural voters. Rather, what I mean is that the institution of the Republican Party no longer brings much to the political bargaining table. The party has spent down decades of political capital and no recourse to trust in their reputation to solve collective action problems. The bill has finally come due for their spendthrift and short-sighted culture. As much as it may hurt our sympathetic sensibilities, we owe it to them to let them learn from this experience and, after a few decades of trustworthy behavior and political saving, they should be able to pull their party up by their bootstraps.

In four years, two with control of all three branches, the GOP was never ever able to pass legislation as impactful on the US landscape as what the Democrats pulled off this week. The Republican party remains an efficient fundraising organizing and cultural brand for running a campaign, no doubt. There’s not going to be a third-party usurping of their status as one of the two dominant parties, at least not any time particularly soon. But as far as the legislative marketplace is concerned, the Republican party is dead broke.

Broad Base, Low Rates: Every US State Fails on Good Sales Tax Principles

In a previous post, I contrasted the income and property taxes, but I left out the other important tax: the retail sales tax. So let’s rectify that omission.

The retail sales tax is like the “Little Engine that Could,” delivering a steady stream of revenue to governments, while mostly staying out of the passionate debates surrounding the income and sales taxes. About 23% of state and local tax revenue comes from general sales taxes in the US, roughly equal to income taxes, and if you include selective sales taxes it’s slightly larger than the property tax share.

But there’s a problem with sales tax. The sales tax “base,” basically the extent of economic activity that the base covers, has been shrinking. A lot. As Jared Walczak has recently written, in just the past 20 years the “breadth” of the sales tax (how much of the potential base it covers) has fallen from about 50% to 30%.

As Walczak also notes, there are seven or so broadly agreed on principles of sales taxes, but I would say there are two primary ones (the first two on his list):

  1. An ideal sales tax is imposed on all final consumption, both goods and services.
  2. An ideal sales tax exempts all intermediate transactions (business inputs) to avoid tax pyramiding.

But US states violate these two principles in various ways, leading to (oddly enough) a tax base that is simultaneously too narrow and too wide. Why is this?

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Coase and COVID

Update: I added a comment on the post to clarify why I don’t think that having seniors stay at home is the correct Coasean solution. In short: social isolation has high costs!

Bryan Caplan has an interesting post on COVID and reciprocal externalities. Caplan starts off with the straightforward Coasean statement: “Yes, people who don’t wear masks impose negative externalities on others. But people who insist on masks impose negative externalities, too.”

For those not familiar with Coase’s 1960 article, one of his fundamental insights about property rights is that when property rights are not clearly defined, both parties can be imposing costs on one another. The externalities are reciprocal, not just in one direction. The efficient outcome, when bargaining is not possible, is to allocate the property right such that the “least cost avoider” is the one that adjusts their behavior. In other words, you allocate the property right to the party who would obtain the property right if bargaining were possible.

But Caplan uses this Coasean framework to come to the opposite conclusion that I would. Why?

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Minimum Wage vs. EITC: Who Pays?

My co-blogger Mike Makowsky has a great post earlier this week about the minimum wage. Go read it before you read my post. When Mike said he was bothered by the notion that “the welfare state must be channeled through employment,” I very much nodded in agreement. It reminded me of a frustration I have with the entire debate about the minimum wage vs. the Earned Income Tax Credit as policy tools to help out the least well-off in society (yes, some argue they are complements, but let’s put that debate aside for the moment).

Here’s my frustration. In both the popular discussion and occasionally among academics/policy wonks, the difference between the minimum wage and the EITC is often framed this way: employers pay for the minimum wage, but the government pays for the EITC. I know there are important questions about the incidence of the minimum wage, but let’s assume that the proponents of higher minimum wages are correct, and the full cost comes out of business profits.

But the distinction between “employers” and “the government” is not a useful one. Where does the government get its revenue to pay for things like the EITC (or alternatively, food stamps)? They must come from society. There is some diversion of real resources from Group A to Group B. Group A is, in the case of the minimum wage, the owners of businesses — in other words, individuals with high incomes. Group B is the workers. But this is true in the case of both the minimum wage and the EITC!

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The Minimum Wage as Capitulation

It is an odd thing watching the pro-labor, pro-redistribution portions of our advocacy and activism classes capitulate to the notion that the welfare state must be channeled through employment. When did this framing become so dominant? One of you just yelled “the Welfare Reform Act of 1996!” through my office window, but I think that’s wrong. I think the game was lost when we decided the minimum wage was a core policy signifier. There’s something irresistible about it– if there is one thing median voters everywhere seem to agree on is that their wage should be higher and their rent lower. Everything else is policy nerd gobbly-gook.

To my mind, the minimum wage is a policy failure strictly on the terms of (my own) left-of-center preferences. It is a victory of both political framing and strategy for coalitions against economic redistribution and the social safety net. That most of the left doesn’t even see this as a defeat makes it all the more devastating. Those outside the workforce are quietly placed outside the discussion and, in turn, are of secondary concern. More subtly, and perhaps more importantly, though, it builds into the policy construct a bargain that must be repeated and updated as national and local price levels change. Those repeated bargaining events force supporters to expend resources in each new iteration while, at the same time, giving their antagonists votes they can dangle when trying to secure support for their own pet policies. You want a higher minimum wage? Well, I’ve got a military procurement bill coming up next month that is slated to build 4 more F-35s in my district...

I subscribe to the belief that the failures of the US healthcare system most frequently stem from its connection to employment. Instead of heavily (or, yes, even entirely) subsidizing its purchase by consumers, we instead opted to grant a tax break to insurance provision by employers and here we are. The Affordable Care Act tried to weaken this connection, but still we are here. If you believe that health care is a human right, then connecting it to employment is a grievous error. If you believe a “living wage” is a human right, then why would you advocate making the same mistake again? We don’t live off wages, we live off consumption. If you want to guarantee an adequate standard of consumption, why would you include my employer as a go-between?

Which is not to say there isn’t political value to be mined from the $15 minimum wage debate. It has certainly crested the threshold of credible threat. It could be used as a political cudgel to bargain for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), and then bundled with the carrot: repeal the minimum wage entirely from the US law books in return for a $1,000 a month UBI that every citizen receives once they are no longer claimed as a legal dependent. For all the theoretic struggles the market might have with distortionary effects of a price floor (unemployment, low-cost discrimination) and substitution effects of a more expensive labor force (robots), I have all the faith in the world it can handle broad income effects just fine, thank you very much.


When economists talk about the minimum wage in bars, amongst themselves, without cheering and jeering onlookers, it is almost inevitably turns into a story of technocratic calibration. If we accept there is non-zero monopsony power, but also eventual disemployment effects, given the observed numbers, the optimal minimum wage is X% of the Zth percentile of the wage distribution. When these conversations happen on twitter, onlookers and participants are frequently less interested in calibration or generous in spirit. I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know that animal spirits are real, particularly when blood and memes are in the air.

Arguments over the minimum wage nearly always include references to an empirical literature that sometimes finds negative effects on employment while other times finds little to no disemployment at all, quickly followed by the theoretical point that there has to be some minimum wage above which employment would decline (or, at least, shift out of the legal sector). Part of what lets this debate persist are the modest sizes of past minimum wage increases. The one glaring exception I know of is when the Fair Labor Act of 1938 imposed a minimum wage that was roughly four times as large as standard worker wages in Puerto Rico, resulting in 65% unemployment . An exemption for Puerto Rico did not arrive for over two years and it is fair to say large portions of the economy were decimated. Future hikes had similarly negative, but far less cataclysmic, effects on Puerto Rican employment.

When the Fair Labor Act smashed into Puerto Rico with all the technocratic precision of a drunken mammoth, ~65% of the workforce ceased to be employed. But… do we really believe that 65% of people stopped working for a living? Of course not. Rather, the island labor market went gray. Under a hypothetically crushing minimum wage, employers will pay people in cash, off the books. They will hire family members, take them out of retirement or out of school. Yes, they’ll hire robots too, but I’m not really worried about 2nd order employment shifts favoring upper-middle class engineers. What I’m worried about is when whole classes of people enter the gray market (or markets even less legal), they no longer operate under the layering of legal and regulatory protections we often take for granted, especially ostensibly pro-market types who think that labor and safety standards are emergent phenomena. This sounds suboptimal to me, and probably to most labor advocates, but you know who it might sound great to? Libertarians who want the government entirely out of the workplace.

The minimum wage has become a left wing shibboleth, but that doesn’t make it good left wing policy. If anything, its one of the great right-wing gambits of the last 100 years. A policy that undermines its own ambitions at semi-regular intervals and inoculates the political marketplace against superior policies that would help far more people but, yes, would demand a larger tax bill. What more could Republican’s have asked for than a policy that holds the welfare state tax bill at bay and while handing ammunition to the Democratic coalition members purging their own ranks?

How Should We Teach Public Goods Theory?

Joshua Hendrickson recently wrote about the provision of public goods, and how we teach public goods in economics. My post today is not so much a reply to Hendrickson, but is inspired by his mediation on public goods as I gear up to teach another semester of Public Finance.

The theory of public goods that economists discuss among themselves is pretty straightforward: when a good is both non-rival and non-excludable, there is a strong case for government intervention of some sort (though not necessarily public provision). The opposite is true when a good is both rival and excludable: there is a strong case for laissez faire.

Seems simple enough, right? But communicating this concept to undergraduates and the general public has been a major challenge. Part of the confusion arises from the term itself, “public good.” Non-economists tend to use the term interchangeably with the notion of “the common good, as is clear from Wikipedia, a dictionary, or a conversation with your grandma. For this reason, I sometimes substitute the awkward phrase “collective consumption good” (this is actually Samuelson’s term in his classic article on the topic), but all the textbooks so use it so I often default to the standard terminology.

From Jonathan Gruber’s Public Finance and Public Policy

But I think there’s a deeper problem than just terminology. Economists have put themselves in a box. Literally. Here’s a standard 2×2 matrix from Jonathan Gruber’s undergraduate public finance textbook. I don’t mean to pick on Gruber here — this is a pretty standard presentation. You can find it in many microeconomics textbooks too, or on Wikipedia. Everything goes in a box! It’s a nice stylized way to think of the terminology. It makes for nice test questions. But here’s the real problem with it as a pedagogical tool: it doesn’t seem to help many students! Or at least, it doesn’t seem to help them retain the knowledge between their micro principles courses and upper division courses (at least in my experience, I’d be happy to hear others chime in here).

So how can we teach this concept better? I have a few ideas. I’d like to hear yours too.

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Taxes and Commitment

An American tourist in a foreign land surveys the surroundings. Down on the river he sees a boat at a distance coming into town. The men are being whipped as they row the boat filled-to-the-brim with fresh produce. Angered at the sight, the tourist rushes down to the dock to meet them as they unload. He tells the men of their value and worth. He yells at the man who whipped them. Then, a twist happens. The men explain that they were concerned they would not row fast enough and therefore were worried the fresh produce would spoil before getting to market. They hired the monitor to ensure they all rowed fast.

The source of that apocryphal story is unclear, but the economic content is rich. The men were concerned with the free-rider problem and sought a commitment device to ensure their fast rowing. How often are we willing to suffer the lashes of inefficiency to obtain some measure of the public good?

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